Piece-time in the remote revolution?

Might employers look back to 19th Century and make piece rates the norm for the homeworkers of the future.

Go back in time to the 19th century and visit Cradley Heath, 8 miles west of Birmingham in the UK and you will have heard the incessant clamour of hammer on iron as a legion of homeworkers toiled in the heat, making chain link for industry and shipping.

Chainmakers were paid piece rates (also known as paid per task), so what they earned was determined by the sort of chain they made, how much and of what quality.

Lone chainmaker in Cradley Heath. Photo credit: Past Pixels 

‘How much’ and ‘of what quality’ were used by unscrupulous employers to pay as little as possible, the advertised projected earnings per day were never realised, forcing homeworkers to work longer each day in appalling conditions to earn remotely close to what they needed to exist on.

In 1909 the Trade Board Act created the Chain Trade Board which set a minimum rate of pay for chainmakers (mainly women) working at home. Most employers resisted and used underhand methods to deny the often illiterate women workers their rights.

The home-workers of Cradley Heath went on strike in 1910 in protest against low pay and exploitative working conditions and their victory had an enormous impact across the British Labour Movement, pioneering the introduction of the National Minimum Wage Act which extended minimum pay protection to all industries.

Taking out the unscrupulous, how much and what quality are just as relevant to todays’ employers and employees. The opportunity to work from home and do as much (or as little) as you wish gives homeworkers a degree of flexibility to earn a wage around other commitments such as raising children or indeed another job.

Piece rates in the garment industry are commonplace but would non-manufacturing expenses such as selling, accounting and customer service make a permanent move out of the office to the home and be remunerated per task?

Paying an employee by output encourages them to manage time so as to increase their output as they achieve more both for the company and for themselves. It is, however, recognised that remote working brings its own health and safety hazards, from working in isolation, pressure to continue working when sick, to a lack of control over the work environment.

Good employers will ensure the welfare of remote home-working employees becomes paramount to the success of this potential new working relationship. Office Health and Safety standards need to be re-evaluated and adapted for home-working environments including support for employees who may find it difficult to adapt to limited social contact, while others may find it harder to manage their time or to separate work from home life.

The Coronavirus pandemic has forcibly driven employers and employees out of their offices and experience remote working, where in many cases, it would never have been considered. Employers need to consider how they judge the quality of remote work, pay fairly and take responsibility for staff wellbeing – employees have the chance to enhance earnings and work flexibly beyond the restriction of a 9 – 5 working day.

A win-win? Hopefully yes, with mutual respect as the foundation of this new relationship. Employers need to think how they gain competitive advantage but not at the expense of their remote staff, who as it stands today, lack the organisation of the Cradley Heath Chainmakers to strike for fair pay and working conditions.

©Remote Revolution 16/6/20

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